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Organizational Change
How to Find Lasting Motivation and Engagement at Work

Are you excited about your work? Is it a fulfilling endeavor that you’re proud to take part in and which you enjoy doing? Or is it more of a grind?

A recent Gallup survey found that only 30 percent of US workers were “actively engaged and inspired at work,” while 50 percent weren’t engaged and the rest were actively disengaged. Work is just tolerable for half of us and a fifth of us are miserable. This is woeful. Are the bulk of us destined to spend our lives working in unfulfilling roles?

As the survey revealed, work isn’t a slog for everyone. Nearly a third of those surveyed were enthusiastic about their work. What is it about them? Are there really people who spring out of bed with excitement on Mondays like a child on Christmas morning? If so, how did they get there? Maybe some of them were just lucky to have fallen into the right opportunity or grew up knowing exactly what they wanted to do.

Let’s think about this in terms of Douglas McGregor’s Theory X (people are inherently lazy and have to be closely monitored and coerced into doing their work) and Theory Y (people are intrinsically self-motivated and can flourish when given the right conditions). This often seems to be taken as a dichotomy, but McGregor did not think of these as fixed options - rather as points on a continuum. Examining the theory as it was originally intended turns the idea on its head. This is worth mulling over for a moment as we try to consider the engagement problem anew.

So what is it that makes the difference for those fortunate few? How did they get there? I believe there are multiple paths to engagement; it could come from a great working environment or from having a boss who inspires the best in you. It could also come from working for a cause you really care about or through having co-workers who seem like family members.Engagement Matrix

You need fuel and fire

We have to get few things aligned and the first of these is passion. Passion is the driver towards the desired outcome of engagement. Passion is the force that can help us to achieve and maintain engagement. I like to think of it in terms of fire: You want heat but heat is not self-sustaining on its own; passion can be thought of as the flame that provides the heat.

Furthermore, while flames are needed to produce heat, they themselves are dependent on a fuel source to keep from being extinguished. Purpose is that fuel. In other words, purpose is meaning and passion is excitement. Engagement is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’. If we want to be engaged in our work, we should work to understand and align these different factors.

The Passion/Purpose Engagement Matrix displays the potential pitfalls if we lack alignment. If passion and purpose are low, active disengagement can probably be expected. The further we retreat into that corner, the better it fits the concept of Theory X, but I would ask that we consider whether that should be an indictment of the employee or of the management? As John Hagel writes, “it is not surprising that passionate people often flee the confines of larger firms.”

As purpose goes up but passion stays low, we move over to the non-engagement quadrant. There’s meaning in the work but for whatever reason, there’s no excitement. Fuel abounds but the work doesn’t provide a spark. We may not be destructive in our efforts but we’re surely missing an opportunity as there’s no way to link this ‘meaning’ to the heat, which is desired when the excitement isn’t there.

If we slide up to the top left quadrant we have the spark but no purpose. How long can it last? It’s like a bottle rocket: taking off fast but quickly exhausting whatever fuel was there (pop!). I’ve been here before – thoroughly excited about a new work opportunity only to find myself deflated and asking, “what happened?” just a few months down the road.

In the last spot, with purpose and passion aligned, we have the possibility of lasting engagement. Here’s the bad news: even if we land there, I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to guarantee that we’ll stay there. I do think that knowing what got us there and staying aware of that could greatly increase our chances though. I say we give it a try and if things go really badly wrong we can always fall back on Plan B by ignoring reality and living in blissful ignorance.

Can we find our ‘you-shaped’ holes?

This leads me to a great quote from Nilofer Merchant, whose idea of ‘Onlyness’ is one I recommend getting well-acquainted with:

“Instead of trying to be weird in a normal world, maybe be normal in a weird world. In other words, you should always go where there is a ‘you-shaped’ hole in the world. Don’t wait for permission; give yourself permission. Don’t wait to be seen; see yourself. Stop waiting for a big idea because you can make your idea big. Instead of waiting for a place to fit in, make a hole in the world that is right for you. In other words: Own that spot in the world only you can stand in, the place of your history and experiences, visions and hopes … stand in your Onlyness. It is a position of real strength and from that place, you can dent the world.”

Think about this: If what you’re doing now doesn’t fit well, start looking for a better fit. Or, see what you can do to change the shape of the hole you currently inhabit to make it more ‘you-shaped’. I doubt there are many of us who will find opportunities that fit us like Cinderella’s glass slipper. Instead, I suspect it’s more like a new pair of trainers that have to be broken in a bit before they’re ours.

So if you’re wearing goalkeeper’s gloves but you know you’re meant to be a striker, by all means work on making that change. But if you’re in a role that could be ‘you-shaped’ then I think it’s best to try and break it in a little better before you give up on it. What do I mean by that?

I think you have to put in some serious effort to make any role you assume suitable for you. It will take time, effort and dedication. You need to understand the things that will help you bring purpose and passion to your work and you’ll have to think about how to integrate these factors. Furthermore, you’ll have to build the trust necessary to stretch the role. Nothing breeds breathing room like a little success. Get on the same page as your boss. Learn what he or she really wants from you and exceed expectations. As you do that, you’ll likely find the constraints loosening.

As you build up confidence, think about how to approach the tweaking of your role. Can you have a direct discussion with your boss or is it something that’s better dealt with indirectly? Can you volunteer for opportunities that are interesting or tackle a need without being told to?

A word of warning: Be aware that there may be some risk attached whenever we try to amend our roles from the way they have been defined. Depending on the circumstances, it could be a highly risky strategy. We have to take care to assess the circumstances and be cognizant of our risk tolerance and personal situation. Pushing against a rigid system could lead to rewarding growth and self-fulfillment – but given the current job market, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution.

What to do if you don’t know what fills your cup? Fortunately, Aaron Hurst’s new venture, Imperative, has put something together that might help. The Purpose Profile is a brief survey that helps us to determine our motivating factors. I found it while researching this article and was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. At the end of the survey, the results told me that my imperative is “to drive systemic change to make the world more just by facilitating the transition from knowledge to wisdom.” I wouldn’t change a word.

It’s time to start figuring out what revs your engine. Start figuring out what your ‘you-shaped’ hole looks like and poke and prod at the one you’re in to see if you can make it a better fit. If you find it’s a lost cause, look for the next one.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all turn off the first alarm (who needs a snooze button?) and leap out of bed and into our Spandex-tight ‘you-shaped’ holes? Some of us may have a long way to travel, but working towards purpose is a noble cause. Let’s set ourselves this goal. As Lao Tzu wrote, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

“Stop waiting for a big idea because you can make your idea big. Instead of waiting for a place to fit in, make a hole in the world that is right for you.”

Nilofer Merchant


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